Let us run the entire Farmers Market, agency says

Intrigue in the produce section of the Thursday Night Farmers Market may lead to a shuffle in leadership that would mean new management for farmers who sell in downtown San Luis Obispo.

The Downtown Association, which has overall responsibility for the Thursday night event, informed farmers on Jan. 14 that it will take over their market next Thursday.

Right now, the arrangement has the San Luis Obispo County Farmers’ Markets Association actually managing the produce sales. It runs four other farmers markets across the county.

What can be slightly confusing is that all of the activities on Thursday night are known as the Farmers Market, but only a portion of it is actually where produce is sold.

The notice of the takeover took many farmers by surprise, including the manager of the association that has been running the produce sales for two decades.

But the management change may not happen right away. It has to be approved by the county agricultural commissioner, and that has not happened yet.

Downtown Association Executive Director Deborah Cash has emphasized that the change in management proposed for downtown will not mean any fee increases for farmers or any change in the availability of selling space.

“Let’s just say our No. 1 goal is a seamless transition. Nothing is any different. We are not muscling out farmers,” Cash said.

Peter Jankay, manager of the county Farmers’ Market Association, said that it will hurt the association, which is nonprofit and depends on income from all markets to promote the mission of farmers markets. He said there also is concern about it not being run by farmers.

He stressed the change is precipitated in part by his resisting Downtown Association efforts in the past to move farmers to less desirable selling spaces.

Cash said that Jankay resigned from the Thursday Night Promotions Committee in September, and having no contact with the farmers is one reason for the management change.

Jankay said he did so only after it became clear that the committee would not be allowed to vote on some of the issues involving moving farmers around.

The matter came to a head over struggles to re-jigger selling space on Higuera Street near Chorro Street, precipitated in part by the widening of the sidewalk to accommodate outside dining on the ground floor of the Wineman Hotel.

Cash said her organization was approached by the Wineman developers, who wanted to avoid having farmers’ trucks in front of their outside dining area.

So the association mandated that farmers who sold in the area had to be on the other side, and new nonfarm vendors would be in front of the Wineman.

Cash said her organization put in an application with the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.

Richard Little, deputy county agriculture commissioner, said he has received the application, but no change in management has yet occurred.

“They have submitted an application, but nothing has been processed at this point,” Little said. “I’m in no position at this point to give any answers.

“The way the farmers’ association certification happens is it is based on providing a specific location. The key is who the landlord is of that location. And I think the city is.”

The city is the landlord, said City Attorney Christine Dietrick. The city contracts with the Downtown Association to run the event, Dietrick said, but the contract specifies only that it include a farmers market — not who runs it.

Cash said she believes the contract will make that clear and the change in management will occur.

The City Council will have a special session on the issue at its regular council meeting on Feb. 2, Dietrick said. It will not be for purposes of taking any action, but just because council members want to understand the changes and hear from farmers, Cash and other interested parties.

Jankay said proceeds from farmers selling downtown is about $30,000 annually, or 5 percent of the total sales. He said his organization gives 1 percent of the total sales to the Downtown Association, even though it has no such fees at its other locations, because it recognizes that it is a special event.